Before COVID-19, kids were in front of a screen for an average of 7.5 hours a day, negatively affecting their mental and physical health. Researchers found higher rates of depression, aggression, and reduced interpersonal skills. Veteran teachers were reporting rising levels of misbehavior. And children were more sedentary and weaker than they have ever been.
Study after study has found that more physical activity included in a child’s day results in improved behavior and better test scores. Yet, in the face of all this evidence, we continue to ask children to sit-to-learn. Unfortunately, the virtual learning forced upon us during the pandemic has made a bad situation worse.
Believe it or not, it is movement that helps kids build the strengths and skills they need for classroom success.
- When kids spin and hang upside down, they are securing a focal point, so letters don’t jump around when they read.
- When kids jump out of a swing or drag a sled, they are learning about force so they can use just the right amount of pressure to leave a mark when writing.
- When they climb over a fence or kick a ball through goal posts, they are learning about space and direction, helping them assess space and direction on a piece of paper for writing.
- When they hit a ball with their hand or hit a piñata with a stick, they are strengthening their eye-hand coordination, helping them successfully put pencil to paper to write.
- When they hit a tennis ball or bear crawl across the room, they are strengthening the conversation between the two sides of their brains which will allow them to think critically and creatively.
- When they run, they release a chemical in their brains that helps them improve both cognitive function and behavior.
Children are hard-wired to WANT to move. Have you ever been outside a playground at recess or a school gym during PE class? Kids are screaming in delight. That is nature’s way of helping them build appropriate strengths and skills. So, when we ask kids to sit more than we ask them to move, we are hindering social, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive growth.
As fitness professionals, we can leverage our knowledge and skills to help kids get moving with lots of big body play. And even in these challenging times, play opportunities for kids can be inexpensive and accessible.
Children are naturally interval trainers, so you have the chance to work on lots of areas of development in one play session. Games that build aerobic strength can be as simple as tag games, Red Light/Green Light, or What Time is it Mr. Fox? Obstacle courses with chances to go over, under, and through, help kids build upper body, lower body, and core strength while helping them learn the limits and edges of their bodies. Opportunities to spin, log roll, and somersault help them develop that steady focal point for reading. Pulling a friend in a wagon or jumping down from a step helps them learn about force. Adding in yoga with poses that allow for inversions and balance helps them build core, upper and lower body strength while they explore the limits of their bodies.
Where can all this play take place? Your gym if it is open and families are comfortable using indoor space. But any outdoor open space will also work: a park, a field, a backyard, even a parking lot.
Who can benefit? All kids! We have found that families who are participating in virtual schooling are looking for support. They want the chance for their children to interact with an adult outside the family, and they want an opportunity for their kids to be away from a screen. But even families whose children can attend in-person school have been searching for outdoor opportunities to get their kids moving.
Should you choose to share your talents, keep these tips in mind:
- Games for preschoolers should last no more than five minutes, and no more than seven to 10 minutes for older children.
- Have a solid plan before beginning and always have an extra activity in case one of your planned activities does not work out.
- Finish a game the moment the kids are having the most fun (around five to seven minutes) to keep the energy high.
- Remember you are in charge but be flexible. If a game is not working, sometimes all they need is an opportunity to run.
For most of us, we gravitated to the fitness industry because of our love of movement. Now is the time to share that love with our youngest generation so they can build a strong social, emotional, behavioural, and cognitive foundation on which they can find success, despite the pandemic.